Martin Amis's Koba is another exhibitionist work-yet endearing and instructive. A Harry Pottering among the ruins of 20th-century political illusionsby Frederic Raphael / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Book: Koba the Dread Author: Martin Amis Price: Jonathan Cape £16.99
What have we here? On the falsely smiling, front-covered face of its “hero,” a study of Joseph Stalin, written by a désabusé stylist. Has the author of The War Against Cliché shunned the obvious and found a good word for an old tyrant? He managed to make comedy, of a kind, out of Auschwitz, in Time’s Arrow, didn’t he? (Did he?) Here, Martin Amis eschews show-boating: his Stalin is the monster we all know about, plus a sprinkle of chef’s home-grown ginger.
Is there anything that still needs saying about the man we wartime schoolboys were encouraged to call Uncle Joe? Martin Amis seems to be no linguist (he boasts, modestly, to Christopher Hitchens-of whom more later-of having mastered a sentence or two of Spanish, but only to make it easier to brush off importunate locals during family hols in Uruguay) so the “several yards” of secondary sources which he has consulted are, presumably, all available in English. It is not what he tells us that is new, but-as bestselling fame requires-the way he tells it.
Novelist, provocateur, critico-celebrity, memoirist, Amis evidently needs to be present in his narrative to convince himself that he is not faking it. His speciality is to take things personally. Behind Mart loom the figures not only of his father, Kingsley (you may have heard of him) and of his recently dead sister Sally, but also those of “The Hitch” and, more distantly, Eric Hobsbawm, the academic, card-carrying historian decorated by this government, who claims-with a j’y suis j’y reste air of Lillian Hellmanesque integrity-to regard the deaths of millions of innocent people as a worthwhile “experiment” on the way to the bravest of new worlds.
David Aaronovitch, chiding Amis, refers to his own father’s “personal sacrifice to the cause,” quite as if being an English party official was a sort of charity work. Who would have thought it entailed endorsing mass murder? Aaronovitch challenges readers of the Independent to call his old man “stupid.” Would he prefer to think he was sired by a callous, credulous apparatchik? Bad philosophies sponsor bad men, who use faith as a warrant for dictatorship.
Koba the Dread is, it seems, a still-relevant bestiary. History is too serious, and too farcical, to be left to historians. How many of them notice that the masks of tragedy and…